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How to Find Your Septic Tank

Your new home might have won you over with its charming, good looks and features, but there is most likely more to your new property than meets the eye. Many of the features that help your home function efficiently and that allow you to live a comfortable, modern life are not always visible. One of those features is your home's septic tank.

A septic system has the job of controlling and managing your home's wastewater. If you have a septic tank, anything you flush or send down a drain pipe will eventually end up in the tank.

One of the biggest questions we are asked is, “How do I find my septic tank?” Eventually, every septic tank will fill up and will need to be pumped. When your tank's lid is not easy to find — especially if you are not the original homeowner — you might not have a clue on how or where to find the lid. In many cases, all septic tank components — including the lid — will be buried between 4 inches to 4 feet underground.

If you are wondering if your new home in the Greater Syracuse area has a septic tank, there are a few ways to find out and to find the tank itself. First, though, it helps to understand what a septic tank and septic system do and why it is a good idea to know where yours is located.

How to Locate Your Septic Tank

The location of your septic tank is not a secret. There is going to be a way for you to find it and note its location for future reference, and here are a few of them.

1. Use a Septic Tank Map

First things first — consult a map. Often, using a map is the easiest option. Most counties retain records of the installation of septic tanks at all addresses. These maps should include diagrams showing the exact location of the tank on the property and dimensions so that you can measure and find the exact spot. Remember that landmarks might change throughout the years depending on when the tank was installed, so if there are a few more bushes or a tree nearby, don’t count that spot out.

Tip: If you just purchased a property, this map should be included with your home inspection paperwork.

If you do not find a map or other documentation explaining where your septic tank is, there are a few places to check to see if you can find septic tank records. One is your county health department. County health departments often maintain records of septic systems. You can also check to see if there is a property survey map available from your municipality or county. A survey map might contain the location of a septic tank.

County records are great because they can show you diagrams and landmarks that can guide you toward your septic tank. They may also contain other essential information about your septic tank that you have not been aware of, such as its size.

Some homes are so old that any records about them might be patchy or even non-existent. If you cannot track down a map or blueprint of your property and nothing seems to be on file about it at the county health department or in another municipal office, it can be worth creating your own map and documentation. That way, if you end up selling your home at some point, you can provide the next homeowner with everything they will need to find the tank and maintain their septic system.

2. Follow the Pipes to Find Your Septic Tank

If a map to your septic tank does not exist or you would like to create one for future reference or future homeowners, you still need to track down and locate the tank. One way to do that is to follow the sewer pipes that lead out from your home.

Your septic tank is installed along the sewer line that extends from your home and into the yard. In the basement or crawl space of your home, you should be able to find a 4-inch sewer pipe that will lead the way to your septic system. If your basement is finished, the sewer pipe might be hidden away in a closet or another closed-off area. Generally speaking, though, you are looking for a 4-inch diameter pipe that exits your house through a basement wall.

Note where the pipe leaves your house, and then head outside to find the corresponding area in your yard. Stick a soil probe — a thin metal rod — into the ground every 2 feet near the sewer line. Septic tanks will not be closer than 5 feet to your home, and most will be 10-25 feet away. Once you feel the probe striking flat concrete, fiberglass, or polyethylene, you will have located your tank.

Another way to find the septic tank using the sewer pipe is to go through the pipe itself. We are not recommending that you try to climb into the pipe. Instead, use a drain snake, which you would ordinarily use to break up a clog in a toilet or drain. Thread the snake into the sewer pipe, noting any twists and bends along its journey. When the snake stops, it has most likely reached the tank. Don't try to force the snake to go any further because you do not want to damage the inlet.

Note how far you extended the snake as you draw it back, as well as any bends or curves. Once you know the distance the snake traveled and the approximate route it took, you can venture outside to look for the tank buried in the ground.

A more high-tech way to find your septic tank is to flush a transmitter down a toilet and let it guide you to its location. If you just want to check up on the status of your tank but do not need to find it in the yard, you can thread a pipe camera through the sewer pipe to get a look at what's going on.

3. Inspect Your Yard

Septic tanks are meant to be hidden. Over time, grass can overtake visual clues and make the whereabouts of your tank a mystery. You can still find ways to find the location of your tank. First, you should eliminate the areas where your tank will not be:

• Under the driveway or another paved surface

• Right against the house because the tank needs to be at least 5 feet away

• Next to your well, if you have one

• Near trees or areas with heavy plantings

• Under a patio, deck, or another structure

Once you have ruled out where your tank is not going to be, it is time to start looking for clues about its location. Take a stroll around your yard and look for unique mounds or low areas. These could be signs of a septic tank. That unexplained hill in your backyard could be the clue you are looking for.

Your grass can be another indicator of where your septic tank may be. Fast-growing, green grass may be visible above your tank. If it was not buried correctly, grass might be growing more slowly or not at all.

4. Talk to Your Neighbors

If your neighbors also have septic systems, they can help you figure out where your tank is hiding. Ask your neighbors where their septic tanks are in relation to their houses. Not only does talking to your neighbors about septic systems give you a way to figure out where yours is, but it can also serve as a friendly introduction to the rest of your neighborhood.

5. Look for Your Septic Tank Lid

Finding your septic tank is just the first step in the process. Once you have found your tank, the next thing to do is find the lid. You can use your soil probe to locate it. Most septic tanks are rectangular and will measure about 5 feet by 8 feet. Probe around the tank to locate the edges and mark the perimeter.

If you do not feel the lid by probing, a shallow excavation with a shovel within the perimeter and near the center (or broken into halves for a two-compartment tank) should reveal the location of the lid or lids.

Make sure you are shoveling carefully — if you are not in the right spot, you do not want to do any damage to other structures or wires beneath your property. Mark out the perimeter with a probe so you are certain, and gently start shoveling until you find the lid.

Even after you have discovered the location of your septic tank's lid(s), we do not recommend opening it. The tank itself is likely to be full of unpleasant-smelling, if not dangerous, fumes. Be happy that you have found your tank, but leave any maintenance or repair work on it to a team of professional plumbers.

6. Use a Metal Detector

You can also find your septic tank using a metal detector. Most septic tanks are built with some sort of metal reinforcement bar, so your metal detector will pick up on these pieces. Inspect your yard and the various areas where you think the septic tank might be.

Just be aware of false readings and other wires or foundations that are built underneath your yard. Mapping out your property beforehand and narrowing down the locations for your septic tank will help streamline the process. Along with a metal detector, you can use other septic tank locator tools, including:

• Metal probe: As mentioned earlier, you can use a metal probe to feel out your septic tank and narrow down its location in your yard.

• Gloves: When you are out in the yard working with various tools and digging up dirt, it will help to have a pair of durable gloves to keep your hands clean.

• Tape measure: A handy tape measure will allow you to do all of those essential measurements to figure out the distance from your home and replicate the measurements of any diagrams or blueprints you have found.

• Shovel: One of the essentials you will need is a good shovel — crucial for carefully digging to find your septic tank.

If you cannot find your septic tank after following through with all of these steps, it may be time to contact a professional plumber.

What Do You Do After You Find Your Septic Tank?

After you find your septic tank, you should call a professional to handle opening it. Septic tank lids can be extremely heavy, and you will probably need a specific set of tools to open them. They also pose various safety hazards due to the toxic fumes that reside inside. An opened septic tank on your property poses a significant fall danger, as well.

But before you call in a team of professional plumbers, there are a few things you can do to make sure others do not have the same problem finding the tank, as well as making finding the tank in the future easier.

1. Mark Its Location

You most likely do not want to put up a big sign in your yard that reads "Septic Tank Here!" but you do want to leave some kind of marker so that you can find the tank and the lid easily when you need it. Ideally, the marker will be heavy enough that it does not blow away in the wind and cannot be moved easily by children playing in the yard. A few options include a patio paver, a potted plant, or a decorative gnome or rock.

Along with placing a physical marker by the septic tank, you can create a map or diagram showing its location. Keep the map or diagram with your household documents for future reference.

2. Take Care of Your Septic Tank

Taking good care of your tank can save you thousands of dollars. It might cost a few hundred dollars every few years to clean and maintain your septic system, but that is considerably less than the thousands of dollars it often costs to repair or replace a broken tank or malfunctioning septic system.

Two ways to care for your septic tank and system include not using your drain pipes or toilets like garbage cans and using less water overall. Don't flush anything that isn't meant to be flushed, such as paper towels, facial tissues, and cat litter. In the kitchen, do not send solid foods, cooking oil, or medications down the sink drain.

You can also cut your household's water use by installing low-flow faucets and high-efficiency toilets. Another option is to be smart about when you use appliances that require a lot of water. For example, you want to avoid washing load after load of laundry or running your clothes washer at the same time as your dishwasher.

What Is a Septic Tank?

When a septic system is in place, wastewater leaves the home and travels along the main drain pipe to the septic tank. A septic tank is a container that is watertight and is usually made of a material such as concrete, polyethylene, or fiberglass. Often, the tank is buried underground.

The job of a septic tank is to hold onto the wastewater until any solids in the water separate from it. The solids sink to the bottom of the tank while anything that is less dense than water, such as grease and oil, floats to the top. Eventually, any remaining liquid, known as "effluent," exits the tank, where it drains into a leach field or drain field. The soil in the leach field helps to filter the water and remove any bacteria, viruses, and other contaminants from it.

The design of a septic tank prevents the solids or oils/grease from exiting the tank along with the water or effluent. Septic tanks installed in Onondaga County need to have inlet and outlet baffles, an effluent filter, or sanitary tees installed to separate the solids from the liquids.

How Do I Know if I Have a Septic Tank?

How do you know if your home has a septic tank? There are usually a few ways to tell, including looking at your water bill. A septic system for wastewater management will appear as a $0 charge for sewer services.

Of course, if you have a septic system, it is possible that you will not get a water bill at all. That is because, in many cases, people with septic systems also have well water. If the water line that comes into your home has no meter attached to it, that is usually a sign that you are using well water and not public utility water.

Your home's location can also help you figure out whether or not you have a septic system and tank or are using public sewer facilities. If you live in a fairly rural area, there is a high likelihood that your home is served by a septic system. If you still are not sure, you can talk to your neighbors. If they all have septic systems, then your home likely does as well.

In some cases, there might be visual signs you have a septic tank. Often, when a septic tank is present, there is also a mound or small hill that is not a naturally occurring formation. It was created with the installation of the leach field and septic tank.

A surefire way to confirm whether or not your home has a septic system is to check your property records. It is likely that the building permit and blueprints for your home and property will contain information about the presence (or lack) of a septic tank.

Why It's Important to Know the Location of Your Septic Tank

Why should you bother to figure out the location of your septic tank? There are a few significant reasons:

1. To Be Able to Care for It Properly

The first reason why you want to find your septic tank is that knowing its location allows you to maintain and care for it properly. The usual recommendation is not to build or place heavy items on top of the septic tank. For example, you do not want to park your car or truck there, nor do you want visitors to your home to park their vehicles on top of it. The weight of the cars might put too much pressure on the tank and cause it to collapse.

2. If You Want to Landscape or Remodel Your Property

If you plan on adding on to your house or hope to do some landscaping around your property, you need to know the location of your septic tank. You want to avoid planting anything with deep or long roots on top of or in the vicinity of your tank. It is possible for roots to grow into the pipes of your septic system, leading to clogs. When you know where the tank is located, you can plan your landscape design so that only shallow-rooted plants, like grass, are nearby.

Building a deck or other structure over the top of the location of your septic tank is also not recommended. For one thing, the weight of the structure could cause the tank to collapse. For another, it is difficult to get access to the tank if there is a permanent structure built on top of it.

3. If a Problem With Your Tank Occurs

Knowing where your tank is buried can also help you spot issues quickly when they come up. For example, you might wake up one morning and notice that there is flooding or ponding water in the area around your septic tank — a sign that your system is overloaded and too much water is being used at once.

4. Ease of Getting It Fixed

Finally, when you know where your septic tank is located, you can easily direct the plumber to it if there is a problem with the system — saving everyone time and money.

You should avoid trying to fix any septic tank issues yourself. Maintenance is often complex and, if handled improperly, could lead to more issues. Contact a professional who has years of experience with septic tank repairs, and you will have confidence that the job is done right.

Call a Professional Plumber

Septic system maintenance is not typically a do-it-yourself project. Whether your septic tank needs to be pumped or cleaned or you are looking to replace the tank at your home in the Greater Syracuse area, call a professional plumbing company. If you have tried to find your septic tank on your own and are not sure of its location, it might also be time to call in the help of a local plumber.

Mr. Rooter Plumbing of Greater Syracuse can find, maintain or replace your home's septic tank. Whether you're currently experiencing plumbing problems or want to be proactive about your home's plumbing needs, call us today or request an estimate online.